The Chris Mullin Diaries

Published January 15, 2014 by tootingtrumpet
TB and CM

The man behind The Man

“Tomorrow is another day” did not just give comfort to Scarlett O’Hara – the phrase pretty much defines the experience of reading diaries. It often comes to mind if slightly bogged down with accounts of a (then) crucial Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meetings (for example). So the best political diaries have the pace that comes from the extraordinary day-to-day variety of a pol’s life and the presentation of history’s ever unfolding first draft, warts and all, from a ringside seat. Alastair Campbell’s Diaries are all testosterone-fuelled execution (of policies and enemies); Tony Benn’s favour an extraordinary mix of high political ideas with personal and family introspection; Gyles Brandreth’s go for the laughter in the dark, as John Major’s decency is smashed by his party’s deathwish.

Chris Mullin’s Diaries (published in three volumes, but very much a continuous narrative) are none of those things – not as power-soaked, not as personal, not as funny – but those absences allow much more to bleed through the text and the details accrue. The diaries start when the man Mullin calls The Man wins the leadership of the Labour Party and with it, becomes heir apparent to 10 Downing Street’s keys. Pretty soon, the Blair charm is radiating everywhere, not least on the former leftwing journalist and campaigner and MP for Sunderland South. He doesn’t quite fall in love like a 13 year-old does with Harry Styles, but, well, that’s near enough.

The personal connection animates much of Mullin’s work – something of a surprise in a politician with such a strong leftish history, if a continually fading belief in The Left as a coherent ideological construct. Though his open-mindedness tortures him on Iraq and many other issues as he tries to plot the route his conscience is dimly revealing, it allows him to form and discard opinions with entertaining haste. Sometimes The Man can do no wrong; and sometimes no right; sometimes John Prescott is a tongue-tied bully; and sometimes an inspiring and caring boss; sometimes Mullin yearns for high office and sometimes he dreads it. In other words, he’s a lot like the rest of us.

Along the way, there are fascinating insights into how high stakes politics is played – the whips as ever, scheming, plotting, paybacking. There are beautiful accounts of trips to Africa, with the edge of corruption, poverty and war insisting in from the margins, polluting paradise. There are friendships that endure – Jack Straw weaves in and out of the text, a decent and loyal man, and other unlikely buddies from across the House in the persons of Tory grandees Nick Soames and George Young. Even a boyish David Cameron wins praise in the far off days when he talked sense about drugs policy.

Mullin agonises most about making a difference: to the asylum seekers who arrive in his office shaking with fear at the prospect of deportation to a failed state; to the government departments run by the Sir Humphries for the Sir Humphries; and to his own family, growing up as the months fly by. If he wasn’t given the chance to do all the right things, he (mainly) did the right things when he could and left us these diaries as a wonderful insight into why the right things (and the wrong things) happened.

Old Films revisited, reassessed and reviewed – Purple Noon (Plein Soleil)

Published November 16, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

René Clément’s 1960 movie is a beautiful thing. It has Italian locations – in the deep South too; astonishing scenes filmed on a boat that would not be out of place in one of Wernher Herzog’s more ambitious (ie mad) productions; and a sun every bit as hard and uncompromising as its original title suggests. And it has one of those endless stream of European actresses of that time who can just ooze erotic charge out of the screen, in this case singer-actor Marie Laforet. And, topping the lot, in his breakthrough role, only Alain Delon.

Don't listen to him!

Don’t listen to him!

Of course, he plays Tom Ripley, one of the twentieth century’s great literary creations, and one notoriously tricky to capture on film. Matt Damon wasn’t much good in the 1999 film The Talented Mr Ripley and John Malkovich scarcely better in 2002′s Ripley’s Game. Delon, eyes darting and staring as befits his situation, gets much closer to Patricia Highsmith’s asexual, amoral antihero, even with the terrible dubbing. There’s Ripley’s magnetism, his look that sees through the merely clever (especially through the merely clever) and his almost wilful courting of danger, the better to give himself the chance to thumb it in the eye and walk away smirking. Delon is at his best when the least active in any scene, the watcher and learner, soon to be the manipulator.

Mme Laforet may be introduced as little more than very upmarket eye candy, but she shows how Marge falls not just for Ripley’s looks (who wouldn’t!) but also for his Dorian Gray approach to his evil. She never says that she knows, but we know that she knows – and, once in Ripley’s grip (metaphorically and literally) she doesn’t care. It’s a very accomplished performance for a woman barely out of her teens.

There is one flaw in a near flawless film. Ms Highsmith would never have scripted an ending like that – and said so having praised much of the rest of the movie. Nor would Ripley, a consummate professional in his derring deeds, ever be so sloppy. It’s the only false note, but it’s a real clanger.

I had not heard of this movie until my attention was drawn to it by a below the line comment on a Guardian click-gathering list piece – which goes to show that it’s sometimes worth reading BTL stuff even these days. There’s an excellent print on a Russian website (click here). Better still, read The Talented Mr Ripley, on which the film is closely based – it’s the kind of book that you envy those who are yet to read it, as so much pleasure lies before them. And now they can picture M. Delon in their mind’s eye as Ripley, well, it’s even more of a treat.

A Blaze Of Autumn Sunshine: The Last Diaries by Tony Benn – Review

Published November 5, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

TBI met Tony Benn once. Though it feels like I met him thousands of times – through the famous diaries, the ninth and final volume of which is somewhat different to those that have gone before. No longer at the heart of politics, no longer driven past any intimation of fatigue by the fierce fire of his convictions, no longer a politician, the political has given way to the personal. This is still a diary of ideas but, contrary to an entry in which he deplores his self-obsession, this is very much a diary about friends and family.

The political principles still weave through the text: socialism; the commitment to democracy as the only means to organise life; the support for the Palestinian cause; the relentless opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the trust in trades unions. Criticism of Benn as a champagne socialist is unfair and trite, though one can’t help thinking of the line about enjoying one’s grandchildren more than one’s children (because you can get away from them when it becomes too much). Benn’s sentimental vision of the working class is (in the eyes of this writer, who has observed it up close and personal) underpinned by the townhouse in Holland Park Avenue, the Palace of Westminster and some very non-working class friends. I’m left with the impression that he loves the working class like a grandparent loves their grandchildren – though it’s no less real for that.

He despises Tony Blair and, not without a pang of sadness, comes to despise Gordon Brown too, as New Labour flounders in the absence of its Charismatic Leader and the backwash of the crash of 2007-8.  He’s not above a few “I told you so”s – and why shouldn’t he be – remarking, not for the first time in the diaries, that there’s always money for war and for The Establishment in crisis. He remains disdainful of the need to spin and compromise in the furtherance of electoral ambition – he still prefers to win the argument, rather than the majority.

In his mid-80s, he’s become more interested in his friends, his family and the little struggles that make up life at an advanced age. He glows with pride at the achievements of his (now middle-aged) children and their children, thinks often of his brother, dead at 22 in the War, and apologetically relies on the Benns to fix his computer, cook Christmas dinner, clear his gutters. Friends – glitzy and glamorous like Saffron Burrows and Natasha Kaplinsky and the less well known, but equally valued brothers ans sisters from political battles past and present – pop up for conversation and company. As ever, his loyal editor, Ruth Winstone, goes far beyond the call of duty – something for which readers too are grateful. Amongst so many friends and family, one feels, for the first time since the diaries began in 1940, that Tony needs their company more than they need his – and that he knows it.

Inevitably, his body is breaking down – though not as much as a dedicated and unrepentant smoker might expect – but, his mind betrays him only a little (the usual forgetting of names etc). He is tired often and – what a change for the man who barely slept at all in his Cabinet years – he stays in bed more than he would like (though he’s still not afraid of a 5.00am alarm for a 6.30am taxi). Slowing down – like so much else – is relative.

The time I did meet him was about five years ago. He arrived at London College of Communication alone, slightly doddery on his legs but ready to speak to the students. I had wondered what I should say on greeting him and knew that there was one thing I definitely did not want to say. I shook him by the hand and said. “Mr Benn. I have read all your diaries and I want to thank you for them. They taught me much about politics and history.” And then, almost automatically, I said what I was determined not to say.  “They also taught me about what it is to be a man.”

I’m not sure which of us was the closer to tears.

London – Paris – Rome Days Two, Three, Four, Five and Six

Published November 3, 2013 by tootingtrumpet
Both hands needed to build an empire

Both hands needed to build an empire

Trains, though sharing with planes the consent to incarceration with strangers, enjoy a completely different vibe. Conversations start, flow and finish, with an understanding that suspension can come at any time. Maybe we were just lucky, but both Paris – Rome and Rome – Paris passed through happy chatting and fitful, though sufficient, sleep. I wasn’t overjoyed to share a compartment with an Italian family who filled it with half a dozen suitcases, but Jesper, Amandine and I were travelling light, so everything was stowed. Mme A was a student at the Sorbonne – very bright and very beautiful and in grave danger of giving the otherwise somewhat diffident French a good name.

Rome was very Italian, despite even more tourists than I recall. Little has changed since first I went a quarter-century ago, with a handful of exceptions. Of course, the main one is the cost of everything. Who is paying for all this kept popping into my mind, almost immediately followed by its answer – the Germans. Though I remain committed to the EU project and and (I think you have to be if so) committed to the Euro, one can’t help thinking that a devaluation of a “Southern Euro” by about 33% would line things up and probably help weaker economies export. Or maybe I’m just nostalgic for crossing borders and seeing prices change with the countries as they should I suppose. But Kentucky’s dollar is the same as Manhattan’s, and that experiment has largely succeeded.

Though there are plenty of Italian bars and restaurants, fast food is more common than it was and multinational brands too. Rome still feels more “Italian” than much of the North of the country, but it’s slightly diluted these days. The food is still very good and the views on any street corner still reek of history, art and Italy’s unique showiness that pervades life. There’s a dressiness too about the people – young and old – and film star looks in every queue for every bus. And the ice cream is still the best.

What's that Diana Ross song?

What’s that Diana Ross song?

We waited for a lot of buses – something I never mind doing abroad, as one gets a feel for a city and the people and a sightseeing tour for free too. I’d recommend catching a bus some time towards sunset since, as so often the case anywhere, the slanting sun shows off the city to best advantage.

We waited longest for a bus on the Appian Way, having visited one of Rome’s many catacombs, it’s networks of subterranean burial grounds. Some chambers were decorated with frescoes from the second century AD, an astonishingly early representation of biblical stories in a style that would have appealed to Picasso. An excellent guide made the trip worth the €8, though it’s not for the claustrophobic!

Travelling is what one makes of it and never more so than when travelling through Europe by train. A certain robustness is required to deal with the delays, the proximity of others in couchette cabins and the last minute changes (Milan at 5.30am I could have done without). But you get space for bags, relaxed security and the chance to move about and chat – should you so desire. My first week of long-distance train travelling in 20 years also reminded me of why Mrs Thatcher never travelled by train. Trains go from inner city to inner city - with all that connotes good and bad when you arrive. They’re collective too – a mini-society that helps each other, mediated not by contract, but by a mutual regard for each others’ needs. And trains are reliant on a state built and maintained infrastructure that delivers far more often than not, and appears impervious to private sector models.

Do I recommend it? Well, yes and no. If you’re up to it, six days holiday can be squeezed from three nights in a hotel (with sleeper trains doing their share of meeting accommodation needs) and the costs of tickets offset by the city centre to city centre travelling. But Europe, at 90p for a Euro, is pricey, especially when a dollar can be bought for 70p or less. That said, the great cities of Europe tell us much about who we are, why we think the way we do and about the world as it was laid out by adventurers from the old imperial powers. If Hong Kong felt like visiting the future and the USA like visiting the present, Rome and Paris feel like visiting the past, but not in any negative sense. If the view can be mixed as much as magnificent in these great relics of imperialism, at least we know that we are standing on the shoulders of giants – of art, of administration and of single-minded brutality.

London – Paris – Rome Day One

Published October 30, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

I travelled to Brussels with Eurostar on its very first day of commercial operation. Back in 1994, it was trying too hard to be an airline, with its language of check-ins and attendants on parade outside every carriage, later to ferry food and drink to your seat. It was a nice way to travel, especially First Class, in which indulged myself as it was still cheaper than the horrible Sabena flights into Brussels’ horrible airport.

But it’s years since I stepped off that EEC gravy train and, now paying my own way, I was in the cheap seats for the first leg of a bit of an adventure. Much has changed in those years and air travel has changed more than most – less expensive, but more of an ordeal, with security, distant airports and no seat space just three of the long list of inconveniences that plague the planes.

Eurostar, to my surprise, still talked of check-ins and such like, but it’s much more like catching a train than a plane. Show your QR code to the barrier and it parts to decant you into a relaxed security zone (shoes on and laptops in bags) and a swift passport control. St Pancras International’s unabashedly 21st century look continues ‘airside’ and the contrast with Heathrow is stark. A short travelator ride to the platform and we’re on with legroom and even space in the overhead storage. Less than two and a half hours later, we were in the centre of Paris – the journey a delight, the clock not yet touching 11.00am. However, things were about to go awry.

We walked down the Rue St Denis, not as seedy as it once was, but still very Paris and not very London – which is the whole point of travel n’est-ce-pas? I had a cheeky beer on the way and soon we had crossed Ile de la Cite and we’re indulging in excellent crepes in the Rue St Andre des Arts, another favourite road. I bought Jesper an eclair and felt a rare pang of regret that the sugar was too much for me, and we moved back to the Seine to follow it to the Musee D’Orsay where the afternoon was to be spent looking at the Davids, Courbets, Manets etc etc etc.

imageExcept it was shut due to unforeseen… Parisness, I suppose. The Orangerie, the Louvre, the Centre George Pompidou were also closed, but they were at least scheduled to be ferme le mardi. We were at a loose end in Paris – how incroyable is that? We went to Starbucks. For the wifi, you understand.

We continued to walk – and Paris is still a great walking city, with views to savour at every turn – and dropped into a bar for omelette and frites. Only having sat down and got things sorted did we realise that there were no frites – Paris was making us sing its tune again.

While Jesper showed more concentration than I expected in reading Julian Barnes History of the world in 10 1/2 chapters at Gare de Lyon, I drank Carrefour beer from those dinky little bottles that you only seem to get in France. After a bit of Baudelaire style people watching, we were on to the train (complet naturellement) and not looking forward to the recent notified 5.39 change in Milan.

But these things happen and some good conversation with a French couple en route to Sienna and some fitful sleep soon passed the hours.

A day at Wimbledon

Published June 24, 2013 by tootingtrumpet

IMG-20130624-00635At 8.00am, the ground is still damp with overnight dew, but the clouds look thin enough for the midsummer sun to burn them off – if the midsummer sun ever returns to England. The ultra efficient queuing system that so impressed me three years ago is not so, well, unEnglishly efficient this time round and the cold bites as the time drags.

There’s shoe-friendly plastic laid on the grass in the park where the queue assembles – but, inexplicably, not for the first 100 yards or so. There are fewer stewards than I recall and the famous queuing card has not been issued some 40 minutes after arrival. Wimbledon 2013 is making a few unforced errors.

Some things don’t change. The queue is multi-national if not exactly multi-cultural and the absence of English voices allied to the long snaking lines and the security both explicit and implicit, gives the place the feeling of an airport without planes. And somebody really should be selling us coffee – or, if it gets any colder, whisky.

By midday, one reason for the slow pace of everything becomes clear. Just eight security stations with both x-ray and bag search (why both?) decanted into 20 turnstiles, most of which were inevitably idle. That’s not good enough and neither is the fact that the gates opened at 10.30am for an 11.30am start. The £20 entry fee was low in 2010 when I last queued and it’s even better value today, but the experience is much diminished.

To Court 16, where lots of Japanese fans cheer quietly and sigh softly as Ms Doi’s all or nothing game produces errors and winners aplenty. Eventually Ms Soler-Espinoza’s weight of stroke overpowers the tiny Doi and it’s game, set and match. The quality goes up a few notches for Ms Cirstea vs Ms Voegele, but power is still very much the determining factor in women’s tennis – even more obvious up close than on television. Ms Cirstea shows that the rankings seldom lie and goes through in straight sets.

Come 3.30pm, old hands Xavier Malisse and Fernando Verdasco pitch up in front of a standing room only crowd. They’ve been round the block these two, and the warm-up is somewhat desultory – no need for mindgames here. At 29 and 32 respectively, they don’t look like they’ve the condition to play 35 sets of singles in a fortnight, but they give a splendid display of topspin and slice, ball and racquet in perfect harmony, before Verdasco’s greater skills triumph. His shiny black hair will represent Spain in Round Two, even if its favourite son is already back home.

Wimbledon was not as slick as I recall from previous years, but its plenty slick enough to warrant a visit – even if you’re a local. Especially if you’re a local.

MotoGP: Eulogy to Marc Marquez by Phil Sawyer

Published April 23, 2013 by tootingtrumpet


Well - he's probably too young for champagne

Well – he’s probably too young for champagne

Blimey, that didn’t take long.

On Sunday, at the tender age of twenty, at the Circuit of the Americas, Austin, Texas, Marc Marquez took the chequered flag to become the youngest winner of the premier motorcycling class since Freddie Spencer in Belgium way back in 1982.

However, this wasn’t a victory built on the thrilling, wheel to wheel, audacious style with which the young rider made his name on his way to world championships in the 125cc and Moto2 classes. This was a chilling dissection of a race win, a victory based on a forensic study of the rider in front of him, fellow Repsol Honda garage member Dani Pedrosa, before making the decisive move with nine laps to go. Although some of that audacity remains. The telling blow was made in the sweeping set of curves that mirror the Maggotts-Becketts-Chapel sequence of Silverstone, a sequence that observers had reliably observed would be one of the least likely passing points on the circuit.

The BBC commentator Steve Parrish had been speculating during the race whether the young man’s stamina would hold up over the demands of a long race on a challenging new circuit. The question was whether Marquez had made his move too early. In truth, once that pass had been made the victory never seemed seriously in doubt. In the aftermath of the race, it was Pedrosa complaining of his arms struggling to meet the rigours of the duel.

This is a result that will have been particularly galling for Pedrosa. Following the retirement from the class of Casey Stoner from the Repsol garage, Pedrosa may have reasonably expected a period of dominance on tracks like Austin that could have been purpose built for the Honda while the young blood beds in. That expectation has been blown apart. This result will have sent a shiver through all of the pack, but none more so than Pedrosa.

That’s enough of the objective analysis of the victory. Here’s the personal bit. Marquez is simply phenomenal. It’s rare that a rider emerges that, from an early point, you simply watch, thunderstruck, and think to yourself ‘He’s going to be a GP champion’. Estoril, 2010, was the moment. The 125 race was red flagged part way through due to rain. On the sighting lap for the reduced sprint, Marquez fell and had to return to the pits. Starting from the back of the grid, in nine laps he carved through the field in majestic style to take the chequered flag and the top of the podium. I can still remember shaking my head in disbelief and thinking this guy is going to be huge. Three years later, he has taken his first MotoGP victory in only his second race.

This was not the most exciting race in the world, certainly not as exciting as the commentators would have had you believe. However, it was probably the most important we’ve witnessed since Lorenzo took his first premier class win at Estoril (that circuit again) in 2008.

The victory leaves Marquez joint top of the standings, alongside Jorge Lorenzo, runaway victor in Qatar, a race enlivened by Valentino Rossi’s charge through the placings to take second. However, I don’t think it’s Vale that will be most exercising Lorenzo’s thoughts right now. Marquez has announced his arrival in emphatic style.

Footnotes: Cal Crutchlow continued his strong start to the season, following a fifth at Qatar, with a fourth in Austin. Not bad for a rider new to the circuit on a satellite Yamaha bike over a rival, Rossi, who had the benefit of both a factory ride and also pre-season testing on the track. Lorenzo has made clear his admiration for Cal. That’s all the endorsement you need.

Footnote Two: On the back straight at the Circuit of the Americas, riders hit almost 340 kph. That’s around 200 miles per hour. Just imagine that for a second. 200 miles per hour. On two wheels. Imagine how that must feel on a body largely unprotected by chassis. Imagine how that must feel with the forces of gravity and wind resistance threatening to rip you from your machine at a moment’s notice. With the formidable forces of braking for corners from those kind of speeds thrown into the mix. The back straight at Austin requires an acceleration from first gear up to sixth and then back down to first. That, there, is human courage writ large. It’s why I love the sport.

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